To say that invasive species pose a problem to fragile ecosystems is as true as it is epically understated.
According to The Nature Conservancy, invasive flora and fauna as varied as wild turkeys, kudzu, bullfrogs, Japanese knotweed, Asian carp, Himalayan blackberry, wild boar and garlic mustard (to name but a few) contribute to the decline of 42% of the threatened and endangered species in the U.S., infest over 100 million acres (an area roughly the size of California) and cost the U.S. economy an estimated $120 billion/year.
Insidiously fast colonizers, invasive species overwhelm other members of an ecosystem, reducing biodiversity and altering the delicate balance of the habitat—think rabbits in Australia—which invariably leads to unwanted changes in an ecosystem’s overall function and, consequently, negative impacts on property values, agricultural productivity, public utility operations, native fisheries, tourism and outdoor recreation.
Traditionally, we’ve attempted to moderate invasive species via chemicals (herbicides and pesticides), trapping and hunting and controlled burns, among other things. Lately, though, a new method has gained favor: using these pesky plants and animals as a food source.
Take, for example, the renowned husband-and-wife team of Evan and Sarah Rich, chefs/owners at Rich Table in San Francisco, and their embrace of wild fennel. While no one knows exactly when this flowering, licorice-flavored herb of the celery family, indigenous to the Mediterranean region, took root in California’s similar climate—120 years ago seems as good a guess as any—one thing’s for certain: it has thrived, growing wild and preventing native plants from taking hold, especially in what are called “disturbed areas,” sites once plowed and cultivated and, later, abandoned. However, what is one man’s nuisance is another’s ingredient. And so the Richs personally forage the wild fennel for its pollen, which they use as a key flavoring agent for their popular fennel-scented levain bread, which is baked daily and served warm.
Another invasives connoisseur is Louisiana chef Philippe Parola, who, according to his website, has launched “a crusade to help stabilize our natural environment while developing a human consumption market for invasive and nuisance species.” Parola, a French native and therefore no stranger to exotic foods, made quite the splash when he partnered with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife & Fisheries to extol the virtues of consuming nutria, a large semi-aquatic rodent brought to Louisiana from South America in the 1930's for its fur and now wreaking havoc on coastal wetlands. “It is very important to educate people about the fact that many invasive species are simply delicious and very healthy to eat,” he notes, in a recent documentary entitled “Can’t Beat ‘Em, Eat ‘Em,” which, it just so happens, is also his personal motto. Chef Parola’s current focus? That voracious filter feeder, often growing in excess of 100 pounds, which, in the last 40 years, has begun to clog the Mississippi River and its tributaries: the Asian carp.
And then there’s the Institute for Applied Ecology (IAE), an Oregon-based non-profit dedicated to the “conservation of native species and habitats through restoration, research and education” who, in an effort to raise awareness about the invasive problem, hosts an annual Invasive Species Cook-Off, otherwise known as “Eradication by Mastication.” According to modernfarmer.com’s Brian Barth, in his story “The Joy of Cooking Invasive Species,” the event “attracts a mix of local families, amused businessmen and student activists to sample the exotic fare. Live music flows through the crowd along with pamphlets spelling out the evils of invasive species. Under a big top tent, a selection of local chefs competes in the main event.”
In attendance to whip up some delicious Asian carp? Chef Philippe Parola, of course!